NYC photographer Michael Williams talks about his lifelong love of dolls and what he thought of Mattel’s NEW Barbie “Doris & Rock” giftset!

February 26, 2011 No Comments


The New York City photographer and graphic designer Michael Williams was the first to snap Mattel’s ‘Barbie’ doll homage to Doris Day & Rock Hudson at the 2011 New York International Toyfair. We thought we’d invite Michael for a quick chat about his impressions of the toyfair and Mattel’s delightful dolls.

Do tell us how you got into photography and how your interest came about in photographing dolls as you do have a beautiful portfolio of work displayed at

I was never your “normal,” or perhaps I should say “ordinary,” little boy who liked to play with action figures and toy cars in the sandbox. I got my first Barbie, Sweet 16, when I was 5 years old, and progressed to Malibu Barbie & Ken, Pretty Changes, and Superstar Barbie before selling them all off at a garage sale by the age of 10. The fact that my conservative rural parents didn’t bat an eye at their son playing with dolls, and whose mother nurtured his creativity without judgment, was indeed a rare exception to the rule most males would have encountered if they had asked for dolls on for their 5th (through 8th) birthday. As a child, I simply loved the escapist fantasy of these glamorous characters in their evening gowns going on James Bond-like adventures in their bright yellow plastic mobile home, since we couldn’t afford the A-frame Dreamhouse, back then. They were an outlet for my imagination, and I got to be the costume & set designer, hair stylist, screen writer and director, all in the confines of my small-town, Midwestern, middle-class, orange shag-rug-carpeted living room.

For those non-collectors who can’t conceive of why adults could become so involved in these dolls, I would like to point out that in 2002, The Sims became the top-selling PC game in history, attracting casual gamers and female gamers (which accounted for 50% of sales)—unusual in a market traditionally dominated by young males. The game focuses entirely on the lives of virtual people called “Sims” placing the player in control of their virtual “world”. Will Wright, the game’s designer, likes to refer to it as a “digital dollhouse.”

This desire to live a fantasy life through avatars in another medium is nothing new to mainstream popular culture. Obviously, Hollywood thrives on it, and I just hope to introduce a wider audience to the more tactile and three-dimensional pleasures of collecting and customizing such characters in the miniature scale of fashion dolls. The first time a doll resurfaced in my adult life was right before moving to New York in 1994. I was on a yearlong fellowship studying studio photography in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, when my best friend there gave me a Dutch-talking Barbie, complete with little wooden shoes. He and his boyfriend would often buy cheap playline dolls to repaint and restyle as their favorite silver screen icons, like Joan Crawford or Bettie Davis. And so I had my first introduction to grown men who play with dolls.

When I returned to the US and moved to New York, I discovered the Barbie on Madison boutique at FAO Schwarz and fell in love with 35th anniversary retro reproductions of the very first #1 ponytail Barbie dolls from 1959, and I got a couple as novelties for my bookshelf, because I love vintage 1950s and 60s film and fashions, personified by actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day. Soon what started as a whim grew into a collection that spilled over onto a second, then a third SHELF, and then a second, then a third entire CABINET of shelves. Helping found a Barbie Collector Fan Club so I could have a support group of fellow enablers and addicts only served as a catalyst to my growing obsession.

ABOVE PHOTO: Audrey Hepburn doll photographed by Michael Williams for ‘Haute Doll’ magazine (Left) / Audrey Hepburn in her 1957 movie “Funny Face”

A past issue of Haute Doll included a fashion feature I shot on an Audrey Hepburn Barbie doll dressed and styled after the costumes from the famous film FUNNY FACE, inspired by the vintage photography of Richard Avedon, in collaboration with two other collectors (who created the clothes and repainted the dolls). This was a dream come true for me to complete and let me travel back in time to when the style of Givenchy’s couture creations were all the rage and Avedon’s muses were on the cover of every fashion magazine. I enjoy escaping back through time to that era, where women wore pearls and little white gloves and both men and women wore hats, and these dolls can personify our idealized vision of that bygone Camelot.

I moved to New York to photograph portraits, fashion, and performing arts publicity. Unfortunately, I was naive and underestimated the cost of living, and the amount of competition, and after a year of the feast-or-mostly-famine lifestyle of freelance assisting, I finally threw in the towel and went for a desk job with health insurance and a 401K. After taking an agency position, I had put away my camera and didn’t really touch one again except for family gatherings and birthday parties. But finally, in 2005, at the urging of a friend, I contacted Karen Caviale at Haute Doll to cover the international Toyfair, because I had heard they weren’t going to be in town for it that year to cover it themselves, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get my foot in the door. I soon found myself fully submerged in freelance work for Haute Doll, with up to four stories per bi-monthly issue, which has taken me across the continent to Toronto, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Boston for doll conventions, and across the world via my email interviews with doll artists from around the globe. Sadly, Haute Doll stopped publishing this past summer (2010) but now I’m lucky to be contributing to Fashion Doll Quarterly (FDQ).

The most rewarding aspect of this work is that I found a way to return to photography, the passion that originally brought me to this city. Perhaps on a smaller physical scale than I might have originally envisioned, but with all the artistic freedom to follow my creative vision wherever it’s tiny stilettoed plastic heels wants to go.

What was the general buzz like for Mattel’s new “celebrity” range of Barbie dolls at the toyfair? [in particular the set inspired by Doris & Rock’s magical movie “Pillow Talk”]

My personal favorites were the PILLOW TALK giftset as well as the Francie and Toki Doki Barbie, and it seems a majority of the FLICKR users and collectors commenting on my FLICKR album and the doll boards agree that they’re at the top of their wish lists for the 2011 Barbie season. People love getting “two-for-one” with the wonderful pairing of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and I think the resemblance of the doll to Rock Hudson is especially impressive, perfectly capturing exactly what he looks like, in what appears to be a custom face sculpt for him.

Are you an admirer of Doris Day? If so, how did you first discover her work and do you have a favourite Doris Day movie or song?

GOD YES, along with Audrey Hepburn (and I already have the Mattel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” doll and fashions from many years ago). They are my two all-time favorite fashion icons, actresses, and genuine personalities from that golden era of classic mid-century Hollywood films. I discovered the work of Day after I’d long been a fan of Hepburn, in part due to the film “Down With Love,” which I understood was a tribute (or lampooning) of the Day/Hudson films, and I wanted to see the originals for myself. I must confess I had only a vague remembrance of seeing Day on her TV show, in syndication as a child, and finding it rather dull. But once I discovered her romantic comedies with Rock Hudson (as well as her Hitchcock film), I saw what an ebullient, vibrant talent she had on screen, with the perfect combination of beauty and style, paired with her hilarious gift for comedy and a huge heart of gold. She made being a romantic, goodie-two-shoes good girl sexy, in my opinion. Who doesn’t love a gorgeous lady who is funny, too, and maintains a code of honor and self-respect? 

THEN I discovered her singing, and realized how woefully underrated she is today for her contribution to the American Songbook. Her voice is stunning, and while too many of the songs she recorded are dismissed as cheesy trifles, I find that when she was given good material to work with, she sang it better than anyone else. Finally, in the past year, I read a biography on her, and really gained respect for her life’s work, especially when I read about some of the personal struggles that she endured.

I’m still waiting for the Academy to honor her with an honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievement and wish she’d show up for its bestowal.

 Seeing as you are quite an authority on dolls what was your initial reaction to Barbie’s tribute to Ms. Day?

I was ecstatic when I saw that film title PILLOW TALK and saw the amazing dolls. Her gown is a fantastic reproduction of the one from the film, and while I generally prefer closed-mouth dolls who look more demure, the open-mouthed, full smile of this face sculpt is undeniably the expression I remember Day wearing best, that cheek to cheek smile that just lit up the screen with her optimism and love of life.


 Your technique at photographing each doll is truly exquisite. Can you give any budding photographers who are reading this feature any tips on how to create such a stunning photo of something so small? Also what camera do you use when doing your work?

If you’re referring strictly to shooting dolls on location at a trade show, you’re limited to the available light and your camera flash. I use a professional digital SLR, the Canon 5D Mark II, with a macro zoom lens and an off-camera flash mounted on a bracket, and fitted with a round translucent diffuser to soften shadows. When shooting verticals, the bracket allows me to keep the flash above the lens, rather than off to the side, preserving better lighting. If you refer to my doll photography shot in the studio, I always use an off-camera flash mounted on a light stand with an umbrella diffuser to soften the shadows, and mount the camera to a tripod, so I can easily bracket exposures and combine the best shadows with the best highlights, when necessary, in Photoshop. And I go crazy with the miniature diorama details, which I feel add authenticity to the image.

Other than your photo work of dolls what else do you love to snap?

I love to photograph modern dancers on stage, and portraits of people, as well as some travel work that combines landscape, cityscape, food and architecture.

ABOVE PHOTO: Doris Day as Jan Morrow in the 1959 movie ‘Pillow Talk’ (Left) / The NEW 2011 ‘Barbie’ doll dressed as Jan Morrow (Right)

What’s the next big event in doll-land which you will be covering Michael?

Hard to predict…but it will have to happen in New York, as it’s too expensive to travel to the various doll conventions around the world. Hopefully we’ll get to see some more fun events unravel in Manhattan before next year’s toyfair. In the studio, I’d love to collaborate again with a friend of mine, a super-talented doll fashion designer, to replicate the OTHER fashions from PILLOW TALK and do a fashion feature once the Mattel giftset is released. Wish me luck!


Thanks to Michael Williams for agreeing to do this interview with Discovering Doris!


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